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Taliban fighters in a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, fell on Sunday (August 15, 2021) to the Taliban. It came after the sudden exile of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, but its power was dismantled following US invasion in October 2001 which precipitated a 20-year conflict. The Taliban’s sudden ascent to power has baffled many observers around the world.

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport
Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and conceded the insurgents had won the 20-year war. Image Credit: AFP
What is Taliban?
The Taliban, which means “students” in the Pashto language, emerged in 1994 around the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. It was one of the factions fighting a civil war for control of the country following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of the government. It originally drew members from so-called “mujahideen” fighters who, with support from the US, repelled Soviet forces in the 1980s.

Within the space of two years, the Taliban had gained sole control over most of the country, proclaiming an it Islamic emirate in 1996. Other mujahideen groups retreated to the north of the country.
Taliban Leadership
Image Credit: Gulf News / Seyyed dela Llata / Reuters

US invasion

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States by Al Qaida, US-backed forces in the north swept into Kabul in November under the cover of heavy US airstrikes.

US troops in Afghanistan
US soldiers conduct a dismounted patrol around Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defence

The Taliban melted away into remote areas, where it began a 20-year insurgency against the Afghan government and its Western allies. The Taliban’s founder and original leader were Mullah Mohammad Omar, who went into hiding after the Taliban were toppled. So secretive was his whereabouts that his death, in 2013, was only confirmed two years later by his son.

Taliban rule from 1996-2001

During its five years in power, from 1996-2001, the Taliban enforced strict laws. Women were predominantly barred from working or studying and were confined to their homes unless accompanied by a male guardian. Public executions and floggings were common, Western films and books were banned, and cultural artefacts seen as blasphemous were destroyed.

Taliban talks
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar speaks during the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Opponents and Western countries accuse the Taliban of wanting to return to this style of governance in the areas it already controls — a claim the group denies.

The Taliban said earlier this year it wanted a “genuine Islamic system” for Afghanistan that would make provisions for women’s and minority rights, in line with cultural traditions and religious rules. There are, however, signs the group has already started to prohibit women from working in some areas.

Cost of War
Image Credit: Gulf News / The Cost of War Project / Jay Hilotin

International recognition 

The US and the UN imposed sanctions on the Taliban, and most countries show little sign it will recognise the group diplomatically. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month Afghanistan risks becoming a pariah state if the Taliban take power and commit atrocities. Other countries have begun cautiously signalling they may recognise the Taliban as a legitimate regime.

The vast majority of countries, along with the UN, recognised a group holding provinces to the north of Kabul as the rightful government-in-waiting.

The Cost of War pg3
Image Credit: Gulf News / The Cost of War Project / Jay Hilotin

Timeline: The Taliban’s sweeping offensive in Afghanistan

The Taliban declared victory on Sunday (August 15, 2021) after the insurgents took control of the presidential palace in Kabul as US-led forces departed and Western nations scrambled to evacuate their citizens. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the militants entered the capital virtually unopposed. Ghani said he wanted to avoid bloodshed. Hundreds of Afghans desperate to leave flooded Kabul airport.

Here’s a look at the three months since their sweeping offensive began:

April 14

President Joe Biden announced US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan starting on May 1 and ending on September 11, bringing America’s longest war to a close. It was an extension of the previous withdrawal deadline of May 1 agreed between the United States and the Taliban.

May 4

Taliban fighters launched a major offensive on Afghan forces in southern Helmand province. They also attacked in at least six other provinces. US forces withdrew from one of Afghanistan’s largest air bases in Kandahar, the country’s second-biggest city. The insurgents then seized districts in Wardak province near Kabul, and in the key province of Ghazni, which straddles roads connecting the capital to Kandahar.

May 8

A bomb blast outside a girls’ school in Kabul killed 85, mostly pupils. The deadliest attack in a year is blamed on the Taliban, though they do not claim it.

May 11

NATO began a final withdrawal of its mission in Afghanistan involving 9,600 soldiers — 2,500 of them American. Intense fighting soon breaks out between the Taliban and government forces in southern Helmand province. The Taliban capture Nerkh district just outside the capital Kabul as violence intensifies across the country.

June 7

Senior government officials say more than 150 Afghan soldiers are killed in 24 hours as fighting worsens. They add that fighting is raging in 26 of the country’s 34 provinces. Taliban have captured several districts in northern provinces, forcing military retreats. The Taliban take control of the main Shir Khan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan on June 22, prompting the Central Asian country to check the combat readiness of its armed forces.

June 22

Taliban fighters launch a series of attacks in the north of the country, far from their traditional strongholds in the south. The UN envoy for Afghanistan says they have taken more than 50 of 370 districts.

July 2

Officials announced the departure of all American and NATO troops from Bagram, Afghanistan’s biggest airbase, which served as the linchpin of US-led operations in the country for two decades. Two days later, the Taliban seize the key district of Panjwai in Kandahar, the insurgents’ birthplace and former bastion. Bagram Air Base is an hour’s drive from Kabul. It effectively ends US involvement in the war.

July 5

The Taliban say they could present a written peace proposal to the Afghan government as soon as August.

July 9

The Taliban announced the capture of Islam Qala, Afghanistan’s biggest border crossing with Iran.

July 14

The insurgents took control of the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, a major trade route between the two countries. The Taliban offensive escalated sharply, as they attacked the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat. The US and Britain say the Taliban may have committed war crimes, accusing the insurgents of “massacring civilians” in the town of Spin Boldak.

July 21

Taliban insurgents control about a half of the country’s districts, according to the senior US general, underlining the scale and speed of their advance.

July 25

The United States vowed to continue to support Afghan troops “in the coming weeks” with intensified airstrikes to help them counter Taliban attacks.

Afghanistan poppy
Image Credit: Gulf News

August 3

Eight people were killed in a coordinated Taliban-claimed bomb and gun attack targeting the Afghan defence minister and several lawmakers in Kabul.

August 6

The Taliban shot dead the head of the Afghan government's media information centre at a mosque in the capital

The Taliban captured their first Afghan provincial capital, the city of Zaranj in southwestern Nimroz, taking it “without a fight”. The following days several other northern cities fall: Sheberghan, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Aibak, Farah and Pul-e-Khumri. Despite the Taliban advances, US President Joe Biden gave no suggestion he will delay the withdrawal deadline.

August 11

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to rally his forces. But his visit was overshadowed by the surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz and the overnight capture of a ninth provincial capital, Faizabad.

August 12 

The Taliban captureD Ghazni, 150 kilometres (90 miles) southwest of Kabul, Herat fell in the west the same day.

August 13  

Kandahar — Afghanistan's second-biggest city — fell, it meant the insurgents once again had full control of their ethnic Pashtun heartland. Lashkar Gah in the south also fell.

August 14  

The cities of Asadabad and Gardez followed with Mazar-i-Sharif, which President Ghani had visited just three days earlier.

A member of Taliban (C) stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, on August 16, 2021.
Taliban fighters (centre) stand outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, on August 16, 2021.

August 15 

Jalalabad was taken over by the insurgents early. Kabul also fell on the same day as the Taliban rolled into the city as the Afghan army melted away.

— With inputs from NYT, AP, Reuter and AFP